Moldova Diary: Will War Come Here?

Street artists graffiti the top of the National Hotel in Chisinau with the slogan “No to war” © Mikhail Kalarashan

I have breakfast in my parents’ garden in a suburb of Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. It’s a sunny day, the birds are singing, the tulips and violets are in bloom. My two mixed-race dogs, Pfizer and AstraZeneca, adopted during the pandemic, climb into my lap, asking to be petted. A truck selling vegetables passes with a nasal voice announcing in a megaphone: “For potatoes, onions, carrots, apples(“Potatoes, onions, carrots, apples” in Romanian). It couldn’t have gotten any better and yet again I cry for fear of losing it all.

This week again, several explosions occurred in Transnistria, a separatist region whose border is an hour’s drive from Chisinau. This 400 km long strip of land is separated from the rest of the country by the Nistru (Dniester) river and controlled by a Kremlin-backed regime that has not been recognized by any country, not even Russia. The strikes on Monday destroyed the so-called security ministry building in the city of Tiraspol and on Tuesday hit two radio antennas in the town of Maiac that were broadcasting Russian programs. No one was injured or killed.

Such incidents have already occurred in Transnistria, but the war in Ukraine makes them all the more worrying. The day before yesterday, Russian General Rustam Minnekayev announced a plan to create a corridor from eastern Ukraine, via the south, to Transnistria. He added that he was aware of the “oppression of the Russian-speaking population” in Transnistria – a disturbing echo of the pretext used to justify the invasion of Ukraine.

A street in Tiraspol, Transnistria, seen through the trees
Tiraspol, in the breakaway region of Transnistria, where the security ministry was damaged by an explosion this week © Anton Polyakov

Some friends ask on Facebook if they should pack their bags. I know Moldovans who have already fled since Russia invaded Ukraine. I have planned a birthday trip next week to the Romanian mountains and am now wondering if I will be able to come back and see my grandparents and my dogs again. “Let’s hope this isn’t our last Easter together,” my grandmother said, raising a glass over our family lunch last weekend.

When my mother gave birth to me 30 years ago, she could hear the bombs of the Transnistrian war from the maternity ward in Chisinau. The conflict, which lasted between March and July 1992, was Russia’s first post-Soviet war aimed at keeping a former colony under its sphere of influence. To this day, Russian troops are stationed in Transnistria and some 20,000 tons of Soviet ammunition are buried in the village of Cobasna, the largest ammunition dump in Eastern Europe, despite international agreements signed by Russia to remove both.

Map of the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova

Throughout my life, the frozen conflict in Transnistria has been a continuous setback for Moldova’s independence from Russia, its aspirations to join the EU and its fight against corruption. But no one believed that a real war could resurface on the territory of Moldova. That has now changed.

The mantra we keep repeating is: “Moldova depends on Odessa, and Odessa depends on Mykolaiv. Odessa is only 60 km from the Moldovan border and Mykolaiv is 130 km from Odessa; neither has yet been taken by the Russians.

Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, government sources have told me that Transdniestrian applications for Moldovan passports have increased dramatically. Following news of the explosions in Tiraspol, I saw images on social media showing hundreds of cars waiting to leave Transnistria – although an acquaintance who visited family there for Easter said that some people in the queue might be returning from vacation.

Two people are walking along a path by the river in the evening light
The Nistru (Dniestr) river separates Transnistria from the rest of Moldova © Mikhail Kalarashan

Before these new incidents, I met the photographer Mikhail Kalarashan. Born in Tiraspol, he is currently based in Chisinau but often returns to Transnistria. “There is a real chance to resolve the Transdniestrian conflict now,” he told me. “It’s just that no one has really tried to do that in the last 30 years. »

Since the 1990s, Transnistria’s economy has been monopolized by a single company, Sheriff, which was co-founded by former KGB agent Victor Gushan and owns everything from a supermarket chain to the eponymous football club of the Champions League and effectively leads the ruling party in Transnistria. There aren’t many opportunities for people outside of this small elite. With the death of Soviet-era industry in Transnistria, Moldova has become more attractive to young people like Kalarashan. It will be all the more attractive if its application for EU membership progresses significantly.

Since the war, my family stopped watching local TV programs and put himself in the shoes of Freedom Ukraine, a Russian-language channel on which several Ukrainian TV crews joined forces to cover the war. One commentator explained the incidents in Transnistria as the Kremlin’s attempt to formally take control of the region in order to have “at least something” to report on May 9, known in Russia as Victory Day.

It’s a plausible explanation. May 9 parades glorify the Soviet conquest of fascism during World War II and commemorate the victims, but in recent years they have been used as pro-Kremlin marches. In Transnistria, the May 9 parade is now canceled. It remains to be seen what will happen in Chisinau, where the date has often been marked by marches organized by pro-Russian political parties.

One of the key symbols of these parades is the orange and black ribbon of St. George, a Russian military symbol that was banned in Moldova last week, as well as the “Z” and “V” markers adopted by Russian troops. in Ukraine. “Those who justify the killing of Ukrainians today could demand the killing of Moldovans tomorrow,” President Maia Sandu said as she signed the law into law. In response to the ban, Duma member Viktor Vodolatsky said that “the Ukrainian script will be repeated [in Moldova]”.

People walk along a street.  In the background, a large hotel is painted in yellow, blue and black
The painted and repainted national hotel in Chisinau © Anton Polyakov

During the first week of the war, the decaying National Socialist Modernist Hotel in Chisinau was painted yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. When the new law came into force, it was half-painted in orange and black, the colors of St George’s Ribbon. Police identified two people paid by the Kremlin-backed opposition PSRM party as the painters. The authorities asked the same people to cover the orange with black paint.

It gives me hope that the blue and yellow flag was a spontaneous act, while the St George ribbon was motivated by money – and excluded by law. Law and international support can protect Moldova from Russian interference in its politics. But given our small army, only the Ukrainian army now protects us from Russian aggression. I will continue to donate to them.

Paula Erizanu is a journalist and author

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